The infirmary was filled with peoples of all races, filling the large room with a mild hum of conversation. A black fire sprite by the name of Fia sat in the middle of the room, watching them through half-lidded eyes. The minotaurs, fairies, piskies, humans, and centaurs around her all looked half-asleep and relaxed, but Fia had learned long ago not to trust appearances. She sat on the bed, ready to combust at the hint of a wrong word or movement. After all, she was in Mid-Realm Academy, the home and training ground of the greatest and most fearsome warriors in all the worlds.
A massive orc came over to her, carrying three syringes in his green, leathery fist. One tusk had been broken in half, the other bore carvings in an unfamiliar language, accented by an onyx ring encrusted with little rubies. He was to be one of her three teachers, and he was the one who had found her on the Plains of Rephaim, and he was the one who had brought her to the Academy. His name was Zukon.
Zukon held up the syringes. “This purple serum was designed especially for sprites, such as yourself. It will sync you to the field around Mid-Realm, allowing you to be regenerated after death in the classroom.”
Fia raised an eyebrow then glanced at the other races around her. “I assume then that centaurs and dryads have a separate serum?”
“Dryads are one of the few races that don’t need this serum, but yes, each race has its own version of the serum.” He injected the serum into the back of her neck. “Brace yourself. The aftereffects are temporary, but weird.”
Fia shuddered as the creepy sensation of something crawling over her thin skin overwhelmed her, but as Zukon promised, it was only temporary. As soon as she nodded to signify its passing, Zukon raised the second serum, a thick, blue substance.
“This one will be simpler. It is merely a general vaccine, to prevent you from contracting any of the alien diseases we host here at the Academy. And again, it is specially programmed for your race.” He injected the serum into a vein in her arm then disinfected the needle.
The final serum was red, and it would program her brain to recognize and understand almost all languages, written and spoken. The last part of her induction was programming her hand print and DNA into the Academy system so that she could access the different training rooms. The physical processing complete, Zukon presented her with her uniform, finalizing her place in the Academy. The red and black of the MRA uniform did nothing to compliment the ebony of her skin, but the Academy was about war, not fashion. Once she was dressed, Zukon took her to the portal door to access her room in the barracks.
“Your room is one-four-one-eight,” Zukon said, punching the numbers as he said them. “You’ll be able to access it from any portal door in the Academy. The code for your closet is three-four-seven-three, in conjunction with your handprint. Classes begin tomorrow at seven. I suggest you rest tonight in preparation.”
Fia bowed respectfully and walked through the portal to her new room. She had no expectations about the room itself, but she was still surprised when she stepped into what looked and felt like a jungle. Vines and climbing bushes covered the walls, sucking and clawing at the red bricks beneath them. There were more vines on the floor, crawling around patches of thick moss and up tall, flowering stalks. There were two sets of bunk beds on opposite ends of the small room, and both were overgrown with more plants. A hot and heavy mist pervaded the room, choking the fire sprite as soon as she dared to breathe.
A brown twig of a girl sat on a bottom bunk, humming happily as she trained morning glories into a trellis around her bed. Her skin was cracked and dry, leafy branches grew in her hair, her eyes were a bright red, and she smelled like mulch. Fia gagged. Who thought it was a good idea to make a fire sprite and a dryad share a room?
The dryad looked up and scowled at Fia. “How did you get in here? I was assured privacy!”
Fia squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “This is my room.”
“No it isn’t. I could never share my private garden with a cinder-maker like you. Get out! Get out before I throw you out!”
The vines on the walls and floor quivered and began to rise, weaving like snakes in the air. The rustling of their leaves perfectly imitated the warning hiss of a snake. Fia grabbed the thickest vine and incinerated it, letting the black ashes drop from her palm in a pointed statement.
The dryad sputtered, then howled. Sharp thorns grew from her arms and shoulders, and the foliage began to surge. Fia allowed herself to combust, but even her black flames struggled in the humidity of the room. She scorched whatever plant life came near her, dancing from side to side to avoid their lunging branches, not seeing the dryad pulling water from the air behind her until it was too late. The water encased her, smothering the flames, and pushing her out of the open portal. Fia lay on the floor, gasping as the water freed her, but very much alive.
She stayed still for several minutes, letting the drying warmth of her heat return. The water still clinging to her skin hissed as it evaporated, joining the tendrils of steam rising from her body.
“No no no no!” A panicked voice yelped. “No fire in the Böchard! The books! The books!”
Fia sat up and glared as yet another dryad scurried toward her. His skin was just as dry and cracked as her roommate’s, but it had a more pale-yellow tone to it, like an exposed softwood, and his hair was green and filled with pine needles. He also wasn’t wearing the Academy uniform; instead, he was dressed in long green robes with a belt that dripped with quill pens and roped books. He stopped when he saw her glaring, at first frowning, then his expression turned to one of delight.
“Are you the Black Torch of Rephaim?” He asked, his baritone voice squeaking in delight.
“Who are you?”
“Bertram Bristlecone.” He bowed hastily. “It is an honor to meet you, my lady sprite. When I heard that Zukon planned to recruit you to our ranks, I was beyond ecstatic! Your feats and daring are legendary! Is it true that you are immune to water?”
Fia snorted. “Immune in that water will not kill me, but even I can’t start a blaze when wet.”
He grabbed one of the books on his belt and began scribbling notes. “Amazing! I cannot wait to keep account of your forthcoming feats on behalf of the Academy.” He snapped the book shut and really looked at her. “Forgive my impertinence, but what are you doing here? Fire sprites aren’t known for being avid readers.”
“Perhaps if books were made of a less flammable substance, we would be.” Fia stood, casting a disdainful eye on the collection of books sprawling around her. “It wasn’t my choice to come here. My roommate and I had a washing out.”
“Who’s your roommate?”
“I didn’t catch her name. I just know she’s a dryad.”
Bertram pulled a tablet from the depths of his robe’s pocket, scrawny finger poised over the screen. “Room number?”
He tapped in the number and nodded, as if all of his suspicions had been confirmed. “That would be Punctata Crataegus. She’s a first year like yourself, was recruited by Paki, and she arrived last week.” His jaw clenched as little as he looked up. “She also trashed a whole shelf of books two days ago. We’re still repairing the damage she caused.”
“Who assigned us to the same room?”
“No one. Room assignments are random. Consider it part of your training; learning to get along with a fellow warrior, in the fields and in the dorm.”
“I’m going to kill her.”
Fia had expected the dryad to pale, or correct her, but Bertram actually smiled. “Please do. She’s a weed.”
“Is it possible?”
“Oh yes. The immunity serum the Academy created to preserve the lives of its warriors hasn’t been adapted for dryadic genetics, but since dryads operate mainly as spirits, it isn’t as necessary for their presence here. The trick will be finding her tree.”
“Yes. Somewhere on Mid-Realm is Punctata’s hawthorn tree. Kill the tree, kill the dryad.” Then he crinkled his nose. “Just make sure you burn the right tree.”
“How will I know which one is the right tree?”
“Break a branch. If she screams, it’s her.”
Over the course of the next six months, Fia repeatedly tried and failed to kill her roommate, and Punctata tried to murder her in return. A sick relationship grew between them, one where neither could sleep nor turn their back on the other, but they only felt comfortable in each other’s presence. On several occasions, Fia sneaked out into the Mid-Realmian wildernesses in search of Punctata’s tree, but though she found several hawthorn trees, she never found the right tree. She had to settle for causing her tree-spirit roommate as much pain as possible.
In the meantime, Fia rose through the ranks of their classmates until she stood at the top. It was a vicious battle of King of the Hill, but Fia had no qualms about making any who tried to dethrone her suffer. It drove Punctata crazy, and strained their relationship even more. One night, she created a waterfall in the room so that the water would flow directly into the fireplace where Fia pretended to sleep. When Fia tried to escape, Punctata blocked her path with barberry bushes until the sprite drowned and regenerated three times. The next morning, Fia set fire to the entire room, turning Punctata’s garden to ash, then proceeded to slaughter the dryad in every single class. And no one stopped them.
“The midterm war games will be starting soon,” Bertram remarked as Fia joined him in the courtyard.
They had been meeting in secret since Fia’s first day, researching dryad garden plots in search of Punctata’s tree.
Fia peeled a piece of bark from a birch and chewed it thoughtfully. “I know. Zukon has already announced the generals of the match. Punctata has sworn allegiance to Railix’s ranks. I’m considering joining Draxia just so I can roast the weed.”
Bertram’s lips quirked up in a fatalistic smile. “Drax is bound to lose. If you want to win and preserve your class rankings, you should join Railix as well.”
Fia snarled and threw her piece of bark in a fit of temper.
Bertram quickly stamped out the smoldering bark before the smoking grass became a blaze. He cast a reproving look at the sprite, but he knew better than to expect an apology. Instead, he offered her a chunk of charcoal and sat a safe distance away as she tore into it. “There is no rule about not killing your teammates. No points will be docked for betrayal. I will caution you against betraying Railix outright, but I doubt if he will care if you murder a weed.”
Fia’s expression lightened to something more smug. “Have you figured out where her tree is yet?”
He sighed. “Unfortunately, she’s a smart weed. Wherever she’s hidden herself, she’s left no record, no disturbed brush, and no witnesses.”
Her eyes narrowed. “She can’t stay hidden forever.”
Railix accepted Fia into his army, but he assigned her to a different platoon from her nemesis. This was simultaneously a relief and an annoyance, especially since Fia was forced to share a tent with four other warriors. None of them were water or plant based, but they still complained that Fia made the tent too hot and suffocating. Fia swore that as soon as she rid herself of Punctata, she would make sure that she was never forced to have another roommate again. Then the battles began.
Somehow, Draxia had acquired a massive fighting force that she used to her full advantage. Railix was not perturbed by the numbers he faced, and spent most of the time holed up in his tent, insisting on being left alone. When he wasn’t in his tent, everyone knew it. He swept through the opposing ranks like a demon, slaughtering a horde in a day without taking a scratch. That didn’t mean that his army had nothing to do; on the contrary, Fia was kept constantly fighting for her life, and she loved it. She would set herself on fire, then create a circle of flames and let it loose on the enemies around her. So many lives went up in flames, screaming as her fires consumed them. Again, she earned her moniker, “Black Torch,” and she reveled in it.
On the day of the final battle, the two sides had whittled each other down to a mere handful each. Draxia seemed the only one who could even remotely keep Railix at bay, and the two comparative titans battled it out on a hill while their armies descended upon each other. They were on the edge of a forest, guarded by two lines of nervous dryads and emergency water elementals. Fia had been backed into the woods by an opposing fire elemental, one who seemed more attuned to lava than pure fire. The dryads clasped their trees, screaming at them to be careful while the aquakinetics doused their branches.
Fia caught sight of a familiar dryad, lurking in the shadows of a massive hawthorn. Punctata spotted her, and her red eyes grew wide with panic. She had been eliminated days earlier, but she raised her hands, calling nearby plants and streams to defend her should the need arise. The elemental Fia was fighting didn’t seem to be aware of the dryads around them; his attention was wholly on her. She smiled and led him deeper into the forest.
The elemental threw another fireball at her. She tipped it over her shoulder, listening to the dryads shriek as it came frighteningly close to a root. Another fireball came at her. She tipped it over the other shoulder, hearing a hiss as it was doused with water. He sent a river of lava flowing from his toe toward her feet. She skipped nimbly aside, adding more heat to the stream as it passed her. The dryads were screaming now, and steam and smoke were weaving through the trees. Fia had been very careful to position herself before the smoke took over, and though she could no longer see, she knew where she stood.
Another fireball came hurtling through the steam. She corrected its position ever so slightly, added a little extra fuel to its fire, and sent it on its way. A particular dryad’s scream rose above the rest, and it rose and rose again in a piercing wail as a column of flame glowed through the mist. The elemental froze as understanding dawned on him, but before he could act, could extinguish the flames himself, Fia threw him into a water elemental aiming for Punctata’s tree. He screamed as his flames went out, but his screams were lost in Punctata’s death wails. No water could put out that fire. Fia watched as the hawthorn tree became a blackened skeleton, and she locked eyes with the dryad spirit as her wails petered to a dead whimper.
There was cheering in the distance. The water elementals were too busy trying to keep the fire from spreading to notice Fia running back out to the battlefield. Railix was standing alone on the hill, surrounded by the survivors of his army. They had won!
Fia joined the cheers, casting a final look at the pillar of black smoke rising from the forest. She caught a glimpse of Bertram on the edge of the woods, writing his in book again. He looked up when he felt her gaze, and he lowered his book to applaud.
Fia’s room would finally be a sanctuary from the world, and she would make sure that no one would corrupt her peace again.